TNO Space & Astronomy making advances in scientific instrumentation

18 May 2020

Despite the Coronavirus crisis, the TNO team working on astronomy technologies is busier than ever. We are realizing our strategy to enable scientists to understand the universe, with our work on the world’s most advanced big telescopes; and to stimulate economic growth in the Netherlands and Europe, by involving Dutch companies for series production in the international value chains in which we are active. 

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TNO has three active product research lines in the astronomy market, including: large and extremely accurate primary mirror support structures; laser launch telescopes; and deformable mirrors.

World Class Large Mirror Support Structures

As announced previously, VDL is currently building the support structures for the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), which were designed, developed and tested by TNO. These will help form the largest optical telescope in the world, by supporting 798 1.4-meter diameter hexagonal mirrors, and maintain a shape accuracy of better than 25 nanometers rms each!

TNO continues to work with VDL to improve their assembly line procedures and test equipment, to ensure compliance to the customer’s strict requirements. Some of the test equipment developed by TNO was found to be so innovative and useful that we are in discussions with the Thirty-Meter-Telescope (TMT) to modify equipment to test their mirror support structures. Based on our excellent work in this area, VDL may get additional work on TMT structures.

In addition, the ELT structure itself was designed by TNO to be both so cost effective and extremely accurate that we are in discussions to develop similar structures for both ESA and NASA for their future Deep Space Laser Communications networks. We are also involved in the tendering process to design and build similar structures for the seven secondary mirrors for the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT).

M1 Support Structure / Credit: TNO/H. Werij

Laser Launch Telescopes

TNO designed and built world-leading Laser Launch Telescopes (LLT) for ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT). These help create an artificial star at the edge of the atmosphere which is used by adaptive optics systems to actively correct for continuously changing atmospheric optical disturbances. Ultimately, by using LLT’s (along with large-accurate mirrors and deformable mirrors referenced herein) ground telescopes are already seeing better than the Hubble Space Telescope.

The performance of TNO’s LLT for VLT has been so good that we have been approached to provide quotations for similar technologies for Spain’s Gran Telescopio Canarias (GTC) and ESO’s ELT. We have teamed with Dutch industry partner Demcon-Focal for the latter proposal. We are also in the process of submitting an LLT quotation for the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii. Further along this roadmap we target providing LLT’s for the Gemini South telescope in Chile, GMT and TMT; as well as other telescopes that are upgrading to adaptive optics systems complemented by our new Deformable Mirror technology described below.

VLT Laser launch telescope / Credit: TNO/F. Kamphues

Deformable Mirrors

During the last few years TNO has developed a novel actuator technology for adaptive Deformable Mirrors (DM’s) that has clear advantages over the current state-of-the-art systems in terms of power and volume efficiency, linearity, durability, force and stroke. TNO has successfully integrated these actuators into a series of three prototype DM’s which have demonstrated applicability to Space (tested during an ESA project), Laser Communications and Astronomy instrumentation. The relatively low-power and volume of this technology will allow a large potential market by retrofitting existing telescope mirrors with DM’s within the same volume as current passive mirrors.

To break into the demanding astronomy market we have teamed with VDL, Hyperion, the University of Hawaii and others, to develop an Adaptive Secondary Mirror (ASM) for the University of Hawaii’s 2.2-meter Telescope (UH2.2). The UH2.2-ASM recently successfully passed its Final Design Review (FDR), and TNO is currently underway with the Manufacturing, Assembly, Integration and Test (MAIT) phase. This instrument has several new aspects versus the prototypes, including a larger size (increasing from 16 to 63 cm diameter), larger actuator count (increasing from 57 to 210 actuators) and a challenging convex thin adaptive mirror facesheet (rather than flat).

The development of the UH2.2-ASM has already attracted other international customers to the new technology. In April, TNO signed a contract with the University of California Santa Cruz – Center for Adaptive Optics (UCSC-CfAO) to provide them with a laboratory DM which incorporates the new technology for their verification of its advantages.

The contract, which also includes an order for VDL to build components, follows UCSC’s satisfactory testing of one of the earlier prototype DM’s. The relationship with the CfAO is going well, and we are already in discussion about DM’s for the Automated Planet Finder Telescope (APF), The Shane Telescope, and ultimately the Keck Telescopes (on which they are key AO advisors). Planned upgrades for CfAO include convex/curved mirrors, silicon-carbide structures, integrated cooling and expanding mirror size and actuator counts.

The TNO DM technology is also very well suited for the future ASM for the European Solar Telescope (EST). The ASM for EST will require thousands of densely packed TNO actuators (made by VDL), and need to be thermally resilient and predictable due to daytime operations. TNO has started to prepare a proposal to provide the design of EST’s ASM. The tender process is temporarily on hold due to the coronavirus measures in Spain, but we stand ready to move forward with that process as soon as the conditions are relaxed.

Other targeted telescopes on our DM roadmap include ASM’s for LBT, Gemini and ultimately our aspiration to build the largest adaptive secondary mirror in the world for TMT, at over 3 meters diameter with thousands of actuators (for which we have already performed a conceptual design study).

UH88 deformable mirror – FDR status / Credits: TNO/B. Dekker

The TNO Astronomy team is enthusiastic and proud to work with Dutch and international partners to develop technologies that will enable the upcoming generation of the most powerful ground-based telescopes ever built, which in-turn will lead to new breakthroughs in our understanding of the Universe around us!


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mr. Matthew Maniscalco MSc, JD, LLM

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